Something close to silence came over Tel Aviv in the hour after a bomb exploded on a city bus in the heart of the city. Movements became purposeful and a bit hurried as people set about to ascertain the location and safety of the people they love. “What are you thinking?” I asked the woman I’d been talking with when a phone call brought the news. Her look had grown distant. It was a kind of time travel, a fold in the memory to a decade earlier — the height of the second intifada. “Where everyone is,” she said.
She had heard sirens a half hour earlier; “in Tel Aviv,” she said, “a siren means a heart attack.” Still, though the sound of more than one wail registered as significant — in a country where mass casualty has grown synonymous with terrorist attack — it would have more ominous in Jerusalem, which has always had more. The other telltale sound was the whirr of helicopters, common at the beach, where the shore doubles as a thoroughfare for Blackhawks and Apaches, but which are rarely heard over the heart of the city. There was a manhunt, reports of a suspect, possibly two.
“Was terrible things. People crying and suffering,” said a man wearing a fluorescent orange vest and deep-blue rubber gloves. He gave his name as Israel Kornik and told reporters gathered outside the police tape at the blast site that he was one of the first paramedics at the scene. “I saw a lady inside, lots of blood. I said, ‘Everything’s O.K.’ She said, ‘Yes, but we have to be strong.’ And she cried like a baby.”
People were doing that. My colleague Aaron J. Klein was approaching Tel Aviv on an intercity bus when a cell phone started chirping and word of the explosion swept through the rows. A woman in a nearby seat burst into tears without saying a word.
Analysts speculated as to whether the location of the bus bombing — a couple of blocks from the Kirya, Israel’s version of the Pentagon — was significant. But speculation gets you only so far: the Kirya is in the middle of town; the bomb went off closer to a major hospital, a fortunate turn for the 21 people unfortunately injured.
Already, reporters at the scene were worrying about what would be the next big story of the day: a Gaza cease-fire. Many wondered aloud if it had been announced yet. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been due to appear in Cairo beside Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy. Everyone worried that the bus bomb, whoever had planted it, would complicate the endgame negotiations if not derail them altogether. Indeed, the day the war started, Nov. 14, with the targeted assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari, a spokesman for the military wing announced that Israel had “opened the gates of hell” and promised suicide bombings and “quality attacks” inside Israel. Fears that the bombing would once again postpone the cease-fire (it had been held up on Tuesday) proved unfounded. Hours later, the truce was announced.
The most senior government official at the scene counseled restraint, stating that there was no need to panic over the negotiations in Egypt. “What does it say about the future of the [truce] talks? I leave it to [the senior officials], but this doesn’t add anything,” said Minister of Internal Security Yitzhak Aharonovich, a member of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beineitu party.
Paramedic Kornik, for his part, thumped the drums of war, apparently no less pleased to have an audience. “This happens when we speak about cease-fire,” he said, addressing a cluster of foreign reporters in English. “What will it be later? Be strong. Finish the job.”
His sister and her seven children had been staying with him for a week, escaping Ashdod, a coastal city within range of far more of Gaza’s rockets than Tel Aviv is. “It’s very hard,” Kornik said. “But finish it, because 12 years we’ve suffered.” Finish it how? Invade on the ground, the paramedic said. “Go forward means don’t stop. Go inside Gaza. Finish the job.”
But they’ve stopped. Again. For now.